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In 1770, at Widow Blake's Ale House in Norfolk, England, the widow's young nephew Jonathan overhears two sailors plotting. Having made a pact with his friend Horatio Nelson that each shall have to do what the other dares do, Jonathan convinces Horatio to accompany him in a rowboat and follow the men. On the men's ship, Jonathan and Horatio witness plans to scuttle the ship so that insurance money could be collected for the gold bullion on board. The boys are spotted, but they escape gunshots as they swim to shore. Horatio reluctantly agreees to walk the hundred miles to London with Jonathan to warn Lloyd's Coffee-House, where insurance syndicates meet to insure the British merchant marine. However, when Horatio's uncle Captain Suckling asks him to become a midshipman, Horatio and Jonathan sadly part. At Lloyd's, Jonathan reports the scheme to John Julius Angerstein, a syndicate head, who then gives him the chance to work as a waiter at Lloyd's and emphasizes that Lloyd's is founded on news and honest dealing. In 1784, Jonathan shows Angerstein the semaphore-telegraph apparatus he has invented, which, when duplicated on a larger scale, will be able to send messages across the English channel in five minutes. After Napoleon orders the arrest of all Englishmen in France, Jonathan, impersonating a priest in Calais, transmits messages about the situation back to England. He helps an Englishwoman named Elizabeth escape the attentions of an arresting officer, and together they cross the channel in a small boat, survive a storm, and spend the night at a small inn on the English coast, where they passionately kiss before retiring to their respective rooms. In the morning, Jonathan is disheartened to learn that Elizabeth has already left. After having tracked her whereabouts, Jonathan enters a party at her home and learns that she is married to gambler Lord Everett Stacy. Insulted by Stacy and rejected by Elizabeth, Jonathan gets drunk with a waitress at Lloyd's, and vows to climb so high that he will be hailed. In 1803, after England has declared war on France, Jonathan, who has become wealthy, meets Elizabeth at a gambling house. Later, at the studio of painter Thomas Lawrence, Elizabeth, who is unhappily married, and Jonathan embrace. After many British merchant ships have been sunk or captured by the French off the Azores, Lloyd's pays all the claims, but Angerstein insists that they raise their insurance rates. When the shipowners refuse to send out their fleets at the higher rates, Angerstein plans to demand that warships protect the merchant vessels, which could then be insured at the old rate. Jonathan vigorously protests this because it would cut in half the fighting strength of Admiral Nelson, his boyhood friend whom he has not seen since their parting. Jonathan's syndicate continues insuring the ships at the old rate. When the French escape Nelson's blockade at Toulon and a decisive battle seems months off, the other members of the syndicate desert Jonathan, but Elizabeth gives him her whole fortune, and he continues to insure the merchant fleet. In the fall of 1805, after more merchant ships are scuttled by the French, Jonathan is castigated as a gambler. After Lord Drayton agrees to order half of Nelson's fleet to convoy the merchant ships, Jonathan receives a letter from Nelson recalling their boyhood troth and urging him to hold out no matter the cost. Jonathan secretly leaves for Calais, where he sends a message by semaphore that Nelson has defeated the French fleet. Amidst the celebrations, Drayton cancels the order to Nelson. Stacy, who has had Jonathan followed, charges to Angerstein that the message was a fraud, but Angerstein, after warning Jonathan that his actions could be considered treasonous, refuses to denounce him and keeps Stacy in check by revealing that Elizabeth's fortune, which she has agreed to give him in exchange for a divorce, would be lost if Jonathan's scheme was revealed. Later, as Jonathan embraces Elizabeth, Stacy shoots him. At the same moment, Nelson is shot in battle with the French. In London, Jonathan, cared for by Elizabeth and Polly, revives at the sounds of a procession outside. Angerstein arrives and relates Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. Jonathan goes to the window and, seeing Nelson's funeral procession, remembers their tearful parting as Elizabeth comforts him.